Good backlist publishing is earned. You are either publishing classics and books that have already proven themselves, or you are publishing at a consistent and trusted quality in a specific area—selling on your reputation. But in today's marketplace, where used books are widely purveyed (cutting into backlist sales), publishers have to be in the frontlist game. Even a small house like Boston-based Shambhala Publications, which prides itself on its backlist of spiritual titles, can't maintain its annual 5%—10% growth without adding at least some frontlist books.
Historically, a Shambhala book turned into backlist almost as soon as it rolled off the press, selling primarily by word of mouth. Even star authors like Pema Chödrön, whose books have sold 1.5-million copies, only recently got a frontlist-style push with an interview on Bill Moyers's show and an excerpt in O Magazine. “Our work basically ends when we print them,” said Shambhala president Peter Turner.
Since publication of its first book, Chögyam Trungpa's Meditation in Action in 1969, Shambhala has been known as a Buddhist press. But two years ago, Turner decided to try to change all that by launching a new imprint, Trumpeter Books.
“When you say Trumpeter, it's a blank slate,” said Turner. “We're basically trying to create a vehicle for agents, authors and media to think differently about us. Frankly, before, when we did get submissions, it was New Age stuff agents couldn't sell elsewhere.” Now the press receives proposals for a variety of subjects, from fiction to parenting, psychology, craft and self-help.
To be a frontlist player, the press, which does about $10 million a year in sales, has also added its first full-time publicist (Steven Pomije) and significantly increased its advances. “I was an editor for many years,” recalls Turner, “and the most I ever offered was $20,000. In recent years, we've offered $125,000. Six figures is a very different kind of publishing.”
Forty-five books later, the Trumpeter imprint is starting to pay off, according to Skip Dye, v-p of Random House Publishers Services, which distributes Shambhala. “Their track record has been very strong,” said Dye, “and we're seeing good reorder patterns.” And that's before Shambhala's April publication of its biggest Trumpeter book to date, and arguably its first political book, Susan Griffin's Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy: On Being an American Citizen ($25 hardcover).
In it, the Bay Area poet, essayist and feminist argues that democracy is not just a system of governance but something that shapes us on a personal level. For Griffin, Wrestling continues the social autobiography she began with A Chorus of Stones, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and extended in What Her Body Thought.
“I had not sold anything to them before,” said Griffin's agent, Linda Loewenthal, with the David Black Agency. “It's such a unique thing for a small house to have an imprint. There were other publishers interested, and [Trumpeter editor] Eden Steinberg stepped up. They were willing to pay, and they're putting a lot of muscle into it.” From Griffin's standpoint, “It's the best of both worlds, because they have Random House for distribution. My editor's been wonderful, and they're making it one of their lead books for this season.”
Shambhala is launching Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy with one of its largest first printings ever, 30,000 copies, and a multicity tour that starts with a pre-pub dinner for booksellers in San Francisco and includes stops at Powell's in Portland, Ore.; University Bookstore in Seattle; Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass.; Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side in New York City; and BEA. The book also has endorsements from George Lakoff and Maxine Hong Kingston.
Not all booksellers are thrilled with the change. Tattered Cover Book Store religion buyer Margaret Noteman says she is “uncomfortable” with Shambhala acting like a mainstream press. She worries that the press's mission will be diluted. Still, her colleague Cathy Langer, lead buyer at Tattered Cover, takes a more pragmatic approach: “It's important to survive. If they need to spread their wings, more power to them.”
At City Lights, head buyer Paul Yamazaki said, “We're a backlist-driven store. Shambhala is a cornerstone of our Asian spiritual traditions and will remain so. And Susan Griffin is a Bay Area favorite—that's good. As for other frontlist things, we'll see.”